We arrived in Talkeetna tired, jet lagged and confused. The past 36 hours had been a whirlwind of getting on off various forms of transport and moving large amounts of food and equipment. After an obligatory Road House breakfast we headed off to the National Park office for our ranger briefing.
Before the briefing I had the preconception that we would be given a boring patronising lecture about how Denali was cold and dangerous and that there were crevasses that we might fall into and that we would probably die. These preconceptions were put to bed when Mark Westman walked into the room to give us our briefing.
People always say never meet your heroes, you’ll only be disappointed. And I was disappointed by Mark’s current lack of mullet and minimal moustache. However Mark’s briefing turned out to be both incredibly useful and inspirational. After brushing over all the national park formalities he went on gives us endless beta for the infinite spur. Accounting his ascent 15 years ago in great detail and with beaming enthusiasm. The Infinite Spur had obviously been a great life enhancing experience for Mark. His account filled us with motivation but also overlayed a sense of dread.
Of all the routes that Mark has climbed in the Alaska Range he said that the Infinite is the most serious and committing one. In my tired and confused state it all seemed very daunting. Phrases echoed around my mind making me question what I was doing wanting to climb such a route.
“the approach is really threatened by serac fall you need to move really fast”
“the initial pitches are exposed to rock fall and are probably melted out”
“after the ice rib the route is really committing, there’s no gear and it’d be really scary to down climb”
“It’s a point of no return!”
I left the briefing feeling somewhat overwhelmed. What had I let myself in for. But I kept trying to remind myself that overcoming a routes reputation and actually making the step to start climbing is often the crux. And the Infinte Spur is a route with a big reputation.
The first ascent by Michael Kennedy and Geroge Lowe is legendary. After climbing a new route on Mount Hunter Michael and George set their sights on the spur. However they were plauged by doubts and decided to attempt the Cassin Ridge instead. But at the last minute they changed their minds and decided to go for the spur. They thought that they would always question themselves if they didn’t take that step into the unknown. I can only imagine the psychological commitment it must have taken to set off on such a huge unclimbed objective in 1977. For 10 days they battled there way up the spur in imperfect weather. I’ve always found Michael Kennedy’s account of climbing the crux pitches through the Black Band particularly inspiring, having first read about it many years in his forward to Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism as a novice, but aspirational Alpinist, it seemed to me that his experience was exactly what I wanted to get out of alpine climbing:
“On our fifth day, near the end of twenty-four hours of continuous climbing, we came to the hardest part of the route, a steep mixed gully. George suggested that we bivouac so we’d be able to tackle the problem fresh, but I had a second (or third or forth) wind and went ahead.
What remained is one of my most powerful climbing memories. I recall very little of the actual climbing, the technical detail of the moves. What I do remember is looking up and visualizing myself climbing this section – which was probably the hardest climbing of that sort I’ve done at the time – and then some time later, looking back down at George as he came up. It is one of the few times I’ve gone outside my own consciousness, beyond what I thought or knew I could do, a feeling I’ve kept looking for since, in climbing, skiing, running, hiking. All the mountain activities we are fortunate to enjoy. As befits such rare gift, it has always come unheralded, never when I thought it would or should.” (Michael Kennedy’s Forward to Mark Twights Extreme Alpinism)
Since the first ascent the spur had only seen 7 more ascents. And tragically the disappearance of talented alpinists Sue Knott and Karren Mcneill in 2006. No one knows exactly what happened to Sue and Karren. Only that they were hit by a ferocious storm high on the route and there tracks were found just 300m from the summit where they ended abruptly. I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but the story of Sue and Karren, in particularly the fact that no one knows exactly what they went through, hit home an already strong sense of foreboding I had about the climb. And it is also a very real lesson it what can happen if things were to go wrong up there.
Before attempting the Infinite Spur we planned to warm up by attempting a new route off the Thunder Glacier where we were deposited the afternoon after the ranger briefing. From our base camp on the Thunder we had an excellent view across to Foraker. The Infinite Spur was tucked was round the corner but we could see the summit and the long descent down and up the undulating Sultana Ridge. It all looked massive.
We spent about a week on the Thunder Glacier, but after a day spent trying to “excavate” a new line on a north face in appalling mushroom infested snow conditions, we decided to cut our losses and concentrate on climbing the Infinite spur. So after a quick aircraft bump across to Kahiltna base camp we set off for 10 days on Denali’s west buttress to get acclimatised.
During our time on the Thunder and on Denali we began to appreciate one important fact about the accuracy of the weather forecast in the Alaksa Range: it’s bollocks! Or often bollocks anyway. Every day we would ring the automated weather line. The standard forecast seemed to be “Cloudy. Snow likely, accumulation 6 inches.” Which in reality means anything from blue skies to raging storm. Our friend Kim summed it up saying you’d have more success in forecasting the weather by simply guessing.
In the 3 weeks before we left for the spur I found myself constantly flicking between desire and fear. My ambition and desire to climb the route felt immeasurable. But fear can eat away at you, breading with it’s self and penetrating deep into your sub consciousness. The worst thing is that all the time I feel scared before I get on a route I know that it’s not really the route that I’m scared of but myself. Because I know that I’m going to put myself in the scary situation completely out of my own free will. No one is making me try the route. Most people are scared of things they can’t control. Where as climbers we are scared of things that we can very much control. We choose to go into the mountains. Part of me kept thinking: If the Infinite Spur is so scary then why not just not try it?…
But the problem is: I can’t just not try it.
At one point during our time on Denali I suggest that maybe we would be better off trying the Denali Diamond instead, as the easy descent makes it a lot less commiting. But Ben pointed out:
“Isn’t the reason we want to try the Infinite Spur that the descent is really long and the climb is really committing?”
And he was right. That was the reason. And it was a level of commitment that at least part of me wanted to experience.
After our acclimatisation on Denali the forecast looked very unhopeful, so we felt resigned to spending a long time hanging out in base camp. I started to feel like maybe we wouldn’t get a chance to try the spur at all. But after a couple of nights in base camp I woke up to Ben calling the weather forecast. The detailed outlook was for – “Cloudy.”
I began to feel the nervous excitement building. After consulting Colin who had been incontact with Rolo Garibotti “the weather man.” The consensus was that the weather was generally going to be “not shit” for at least three days from the day after tomorrow. That was good enough for us. It was on.
We predicted 5 days round trip from base camp, but packed food for 7 meagre days in case we had to wait out a storm. And fuel for 10+ days in case we had to wait out many storms. Colin and Rob would set off a day after us so we could break trail for them on the first half of the route and they could slip stream past us to break trail on the top.
We woke up at 4am. The weather looked like it was coming in and we didn’t want to try approach with no visibility, so we went back to sleep for two hours. At 6am the weather seems the same so we decided to go for it. Making the move to actually leave base camp felt liberating, all the waiting and anticipation were over. We were doing it.
We left the security of the Kahiltna base camp and headed across the featureless ice desert of the main Kahiltna Glacier and over two cols round to the remote south side of Foraker. After about 10 hours we reached a shoulder where we would bivi before we started climbing and where we got our first view of the route.
As it was snowing lightly we could barely see the spur at first, but as the clouds slowly began to clear we could start to make out some of the features low down. Looking upwards we could just about make out features that we knew to be about a third of the way up. These looked very far away.
In the weeks before I’d always thought that I would have been thoroughly shitting myself at this point. But I actually felt quite calm and Will and Ben said they felt the same. Although we hadn’t actually started climbed we’d already psychological committed ourselves to getting on the route and it was actually quite a relief. I didn’t have the constant battle between fear and desire going on in my head. All I had to do now was focus on climbing. And climbing is something that I feel very comfortable with.
The alarm went off at 2am. A quick look out the tent revealed that the weather was improving, so we packed up the tent and got moving. I had volunteered to lead first, which meant I had the job of getting us through the serac threatened approach quickly. As we got closer to the spur the view foreshortened itself and the hanging seracs above became very apparent. I tried to take the optimum line between the potential run off for the seracs on either side of the spur. And pushing myself as hard as I could I post-holed onwards as fast as I my legs and lungs would allow towards the safety of the bergschrund. Once over this we could relax a little. The way above was slightly unclear as the route was melted out than in the old photo topo and the 50 degree entry couloir had a overhanging rotten ice section. But after a skirt round to the right and a short mixed step we knew we where in.
After having spent the previous three weeks of mostly slogging up and down with sleds on Denali it was really nice to be actually climbing. I’d almost forgotten how much fun it could be. I finished my block with two M5 pitches, steep fun torquing lead us to the crest where Ben took over.
As we progressed higher the sun came round onto the face and the face woke up. The spur has been described as uniquely safe passage through a wall of total chaos. And we had to keep reminding ourselves that we were in a safe position on the crest of the spur as the faces either side of us rained with thousands of tons of ice and rock.
Pitch after pitch of fun moderate mixed passed quickly, the weather was fine and the beauty of our surrounds was immense. At around 6pm we reached a 45 degree slope at the base of the second rock band and decided to bivi. After not too much digging we managed to get what we though was a decent ledge for our two man tent. Our bivi system for the three of us consisted of a small two man tent and two sleeping bags zipped together. With all of us being reasonably large units it made for compact, but warm sleeping. I stupidly volunteered to go on the out side and and hour or so in the edge of the ledge had collapsed and I was mostly hanging in my harness with Will and Ben on top of me. I proclaimed to the others that the situation had become unacceptable. Will being on the inside said he was quite comfortable. But he did have a nice platform made out of me and Ben. I reaffirmed that we definitely needed to find a better solution and we spent a couple of hours in various contorted sitting positions before we decided that we’d had enough, so started climbing again.
We were packed up and moving again by about 2am. Will took the lead up a short rock step followed by an ice couloir and another step which lead up to the top of the second rock band and the start of the ice rib.
The ice rib is the section of the climb that Mark Westman told us makes the route feel really committing because there’s no gear and it would be quite scary to down climb. As Will quested up the 50 degree snow arête this was very much at the forefront of my mind. The rope came tight without him placing any gear, me and Ben left the belay, and we began “death roping” up the ice rib. It was around this time the the wind decided to pick up. It was, as if nature was trying to show us what it was capable of. I became acutely aware of the seriousness of what we were getting our selves into, as we progressed higher and higher the more and more we were at the mercy of what the weather would throw at us. Our experience was in many ways out of our control. What ever happened we were going to have to deal with it. There’s part of me that relishes in this unpredictability because it’s adventure in it’s purest form, it’s as farm removed from everything that is mundane and boring about predicable modern life. But there’s also a part of me that finds in absolutely terrifying. And as we progressed up the ice rib the strengthening wind makes me doubtful about the commitment we are making, but no where near doubtful enough to suggest turning round.
Fortunately after a while Will managed to find some ice under the snow and a least we could relax slightly dew to the fact we weren’t soloing anymore. Eventually we reached some rock and the wind started to ease off slightly. Both were very welcome nuggets of security.
I took over the lead and continued the cardiovascular snow bashing. Up until that point the trail breaking had been quite arduous, so I was very pleased to look down and see the bright orange helmets of two fitter and more lightly-laden Alpinists. I stopped to belay because I didn’t see the point in breaking anymore trail when I could just wait a few minutes and let someone else do it for me. We exchanged solid American fist bump and sent them on their way kicking nice big foot steps.
The next section was the notorious Black Band. This is the section which Michael Kennedy describes in the quote above. The rock here changes from good granite to turbo-choss diorite. Fortunately it was too chossy to form any really dangerous large blocks. Just lots and lots very loose small ones. It was a piece of climbing I’d imagined myself doing for years, and it felt invigorating to be actually doing it. Despite seriousness of the situation and the loose poorly protected climbing I felt quite relaxed and calm leading through the black band. We were well beyond the point where retreat was an easy option so it felt even easier to keep moving upwards.
After the Black Band Ben took over heading up towards the Knife Edge Ridge. More endless cardiovascular grind. 50 degree icy slopes covered in slush seemed to go on forever. At first in the baking hot sun and then later in the biting cold. Finally we reach the bivi below the hanging glacier at the top of the Knife Edge Ridge at around 2am, after being on the go for 24 hours.
We managed to chop a decent flat ledge this time in the crest of the ridge, so where able to get some much needed sleep. But after being asleep for a couple of hours I woke up to the tent shaking in strong winds. I worried about what the weather was doing. We were now very long way up a very big mountain. This really wouldn’t be a good place for the shit to hit any sort of fan.
The weather God’s were back on our side by the morning. The wind eased and the sky was as clear as can be. We set off around mid day and Will got stuck into the 600m of 50 degree calf burining monotony to the summit plateau. At points it seemed like the route name might actually be very true in the physical sense, as the slopes seemed to have no end. As we got higher and higher the altitude started to take effect and progress became painfully slow. At least we had the sequence dialled: Left foot, right foot, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, repeat.
On the ridge below the plateau we could see the wind blowing and squiring the spindrift off the top. As we topped out onto the plateau, the wind suddenly became ferocious. We felt like we were on the Cairngorm plateau, but it was much colder and we weren’t a few miles from the car park. The sun was already low in the sky and we knew that in a few hours it was going to get a lot colder. The sort of cold where you start loosing extremities. To top it all off I felt particularly drained. In hindsight we should have stopped and brewed up lower down, but now it was too windy to brew up and we needed to get up and over the top before it got really cold. For a moment it all seemed very serious. I questioned whether we could make it. Everything seemed hanging in the balance.
We found a small slight sheltered crevasse and stopped to regroup, shovel down some food and put our mitts on. Suddenly everything seemed a little better. We continued over the south summit and north summit revealed itself. Just another 200m vertical to go. The wind began to ease and as we slowly grinded up the final summit ridge I looked out across the flat green tundra to the north where hundreds of tiny lakes were glinting in the sunlight, the huge white glacial mass of the Alaska range sweeping down to the flat wet tundra below, green and flourishing with life. I suddenly became acutely aware of the stark raw beauty of our surroundings. I had been so caught up in the horror of exhaustion of fear that I’d failed to appreciate where we were. I also realised, at the same time, that we were going to make it, that we had the strength to get up and over the top. I felt so lucky to be alive. Lucky to have the chance to be a concious being in such a beautiful universe. And lucky to have the ability and means to experience the full depth of what it is to be human. I realised how much I appreciate everything, not just climbing and mountains, but all how much I appreciate my relationships with my friends and family and how much I appreciate all the pain as well as the pleasure that life can throw at you. I felt overwhelmed by the intensity of my emotions. Tears began to stream out of eyes, but were stopped as froze solid on my cheeks. I wanted to share my how I felt with Will and Ben, but we were roped up 30 metres apart and besides that I couldn’t properly put it into words. In the end I simply shouted,
“This is fucking amazing!”
Ben stopped about 50 metres from the summit so we could regroup ourselves before the final short push.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I got a bit emotional just then,” Ben said as I caught up with him. It turned out the others had been crying too.
The summit came soon enough. We exchanged hugs, took some obligatory summit selfies and started down.
The descent down the upper Sultana ridge was mostly a dehydrated stumbling fight against tired legs and delirious minds. I was constantly fighting an internal battle between my will to keep moving and all the signals coming from my body telling me to stop. At one point I felt my stomach begin to turn and collapsed onto all fours to be sick, but my stomach was too dry to produce anything. We had spied a good camp sight on the col below, but in the end it seemed too far away and we pitch the tent on a snow bridge inside a crevasse.
We slept for a good 10 hours and ate and drank lots. I felt surprisingly refreshed considering how bad I’d felt the night before. It was still windy and clouds were starting to appear on the horizon. It felt good to be over the top, but we still had around 5 miles of undulating crevassed ridge and 2000 feet of ascent to do on our way to safety.
“It’s not over till it’s over!” became the catchphrase of the moment.
We made steady progress along the ridge. Enjoying spectacular views. We were still enjoying the process, but the desire for it to be over was growing stronger and stronger. After several hours, as we started the final ascent up to the summit of Mount Crosson the weather started to come in and viability got noticeably “Scottish.”
It felt good to reach the top of Mount Crosson, from there it is all down hill to the Kahiltna Glacier. For some reason we had all assumed that the descent from here was going to straight forward. We were very wrong. Soon we found ourselves lost in the white out, on 50 degree slopes of shitty ice covered in slush trying to find our way through a maze of crevasses and serac bands. The wind had created a thin slab which had covered all the crevasses with 2 inch thick snow bridges. We were punching through with one leg on a regular basis. At one point I punched through completely and got fully intimate with a crevasse, ending up upside down tangled up in a baby bouncer of ropes full submerged inside the dark chasm.
“It’s not over till it’s fucking over!” I cried as I extricated myself from the predatory slot.
As we eventually made our way down lower we found ourselves wading, sometimes up to our waists, in slush. The mountain still obviously had lots to give.
At around 1am we came across a tent containing two Austrians. They said that they had tried to descend the section below earlier, but had found it to be too dangerous in the melting conditions. We were too tired to properly make our own decision so pitched the tent to wait for things to refreeze.
At 5am we set off down the final slope to the Kahiltna. It hadn’t refrozen, but it turned out to be far less sketchy than anything we had come down above.
Several hours later we were down on the Kahiltna with base camp in sight but lost in a maze of crevasses, post holing our way into dead ends and having to retrace our steps. The catch phrase was more true that ever. We really wanted it to be over. After what seemed like far too long we managed to solve the puzzle. Reaching the “Denali highway” only a mile or so from base camp we staggered against the flow of Denali bound climbers who had landed that morning. One of them stopped to talk to us.
“Hey, what did you guy’s climb?”
“Erm, Mount Foraker”
“Ah cool, how was it?”
At the time I didn’t really know how to go about answering this question. It seemed like a ridiculous thing to try and some up during small talk.
“Err yea, it was well good,” was all I could manage.
Now I’m back at home in the Lakes, back in the routine of working, cragging and running. I’m still spending a lot of time processing my experience on the Infinite spur, internally analysing my motivations and what I have got from the experience. It always takes some time for it all to fully sink it. But one thing that I know that I will take with me, as I have done with other big routes I’ve done, is a retrospective fulfillment that will last for the rest of my life.
While hanging out with our Alaskan friend Seth Adams after getting off the glacier, we got Seth to joking message his friend Michael Kennedy saying that: we wanted to point out that we had found the top of the spur, and could confirm that is not, in fact infinite. We suggested that “Finite But Really Long Spur” or “Barely Finite Spur” would be more appropriate names.
I found Michaels reply both amusing and very true:
“Ah, but Ben misses the point. The spur is indeed finite in the physical realm, infinite in the psychological, opening up a universe of possibility. “He who is in pursuit of a goal will remain empty once he has attained it. But he who has found the way will always carry the goal within him.”(Nejc Zlaplotnik )
Put that in your pipe and smoke it …”
Many thanks to everyone who supported us on our trip: Rab, DMM, Chia Charge, Mounatin House, Khoo’s Hot Sauce, MEF, BMC, The Montane Alpine Club Fund, Austian Alpine Club (UK).
After we got out I was saddened to hear that Mark Westman has been diagnosed with a rare form of adrenal cancer. And further saddened to hear that Mark is being done over by his medical insurance company and is therefore struggling to pay for his treatment. I’ve only has the pleasure of meeting Mark the once, but it’s rare that I’ve met someone who’s as helpful and enthusiastic about climbing in the mountains as Mark and he played an important part in our adventure. He’s also an amazing photographer. If you’d like to help Mark out and also receive a stunning mountain print check out his website: http://www.markwestmanimages.com/.